Winning Poems 2017 Connecticut River Review Contest
“Struck by Light,” by Lenore Hart
Each August raccoons the size of bluetick hounds run rabid here,
a fanatical light in their eyes. It's not odd to see, at least once,
a grizzled boar hog mad with the heat come trotting down
your driveway, tusks first. That's when you don't pause. Just drop
the grocery bags, grab the baby, and run like hell for the front door.
In this flat land where spring water oozes up from submerged limestone
caves, electricity grows wild on the thick damp air. Sometimes
the hot hum congeals into a bright spear and falls, piercing
the humidity, blasting a tree in the yard behind the house to shrapnel.
One night my aunt Ruth was at home reading to three little girls
when a thunderstorm blew up off the shallow dish of lake. Light flashed
in the rented pasture. She went outside carrying a lantern and found
one cow dead on its back, outthrust legs stiff as rebar. Back inside
she cursed, threw back a stiff whiskey and milk, then selected the sharpest
butcher knife in the drawer. "You girls stay here. Don't look outside,"
she ordered. Naturally we all huddled at the window, and saw her slice
the heifer's throat to bleed her dry. Flesh spoils fast in hot weather,
which was the only kind we had. We knew pot roasts came from cows.
And that, out in the country, nobody ever wastes good meat.
On the golf course, on the country-club side of the lake, a tourist was struck
by the light. A single jolt fizzed his blood and made him see galaxies.
The hot blow flung his five-iron into the pond so hard the splash startled
the gators. Later they said the golfer's clothes were blown clean off,
his spiked leather shoes burnt to jerky. The hole in his flat little cap
you could put a fist clean through. His widow sold up their pretty white house
and moved back to Boston, where electricity rides through wires, not on the air,
and has the manners to stay decently out of sight, inside the papered walls.
In eighth grade a friend and I decided to walk into town. Six miles
is a trip around the block when you're long-legged and thirteen.
Telling no one, we set out down the red-clay lane. We'd only
hiked halfway to the main road when dark clouds gathered overhead
like the scowl of a tall, flouted parent. Three more steps and the sky
ruptured, pouring water and pinging hail, turning the clay to gumbo.
Drowned ship's rats, we crawled and clawed our way into the grove,
huddling far from the trees. But light will not be mocked. It struck
again, pulping the trunk of an old Valencia ten feet away. The side flash
laid us out as if for early burial. We wallowed in the gritty soup,
smeared with tears, clinging like monkeys, screaming each other deaf.
An hour or a day later (we could no longer fathom time) a passing electrician
took pity. He stopped and bundled us, sodden, into his idling truck. "You
girls must be in shock," he said kindly, sliding the shifter into gear. "Praise God
you ain't all burnt up." Later in life I would discover the light had not entirely
left my body. Even now the hands of a watch strapped on my wrist, no matter
how costly, always click to a stop. But back then, perched on a sticky vinyl seat,
picking greenwood splinters from my hair, staring out through a water-blind
windshield, I understood for the first time that someday the light would be back.
Every bit as sudden, with better aim, its burning spear unsheathed just for me.
Judge: Ben Grossberg
Statement: “Vivid and playful, “Struck By Light” reminds us that the novelist’s tools of character and scene belonged first to the poet. Yet the poem also takes on symbolic heft, as the speaker focuses in on her own close call and considers how lightning enlightens—by letting her glimpse her own mortality.”
by David Prodell
Engineer, conductor, single-passenger car,
I’m the evening express departing the bottom stair,
8 pm-ish, with service to the south side
second floor. My only fare grabs my shoulder,
swings aboard, and clicks his hands around my neck.
He chatters about how he outran a bumblebee, crafted
an aircraft from popsicle sticks, drained a juice box
in one gulp. We circle slowly through the lowlands--
living room, dining room, kitchen, family room.
On the steep grade the piston “pop” in my right knee
echoes in the darkened stairwell, and the freight of my day,
software and hardware, seems heavier. Cheek on my shoulder,
my traveler sleepily ticks off the banister rails
passing like telephone poles until his daily news
finally slips to the floor. The disembarkment to his bed
doesn’t stir him so I sweep the aisles of his room and find
in a blue jean’s pocket a dirty hunk of quartz from the playground.
Come morning he’ll whisper his fingers open with a
“Look, Daddy, see?” and tell me it’s a diamond for sure
because once he cocoons something in his palm it always re-emerges
transformed, magical, still warm with imagination.
I’ll rest my shovel, turn the coal dust from my pockets,
and with my son on my knee we’ll share the moment
that has stopped me in my tracks: I too, will see a diamond.
Judge: Ben Grossberg
“Touching and richly detailed, “Piggyback Station” gracefully depicts the reciprocity of love. The father receives a flight of fancy from his son—entrance into his son’s imaginative world—just as the son receives a piggyback ride from his father.”
by Micah Ruelle
The first time it wasn’t romantic--
just part of my job.
Also, the hair in odd places startled me
because it was patchy, like a goat’s.
My family visited the Iowa State Fair,
& browsed the stockyards. Famers
in boots used long hoses to wash
the goats of flies & grime as if
they were tractors or combines.
& I don’t want to wash her
still—my body is an animal’s:
nails, hair, teeth, muscle, fat—all,
like the one I’m about to wash.
Baptism. That’s what it is.
It won’t come to me till I begin massaging
the shampoo out of her scalp. While
rinsing, I’ll wonder if maybe the first baptism
felt as awkward as this one, although
nothing miraculous happens this time…
except for maybe how stark & ghostly she
looks—even against the white tile as she
stared downward at the faucet.
When she asked to dab her eyes, I moved
the shower head & looked at the ceiling--
& realized that no one tells you when to look
& when not to--
save for checking the hair in her pelvic area for soap
to eliminate the risk of infection. So, I look--
a quick glance, & I feel a flush in my cheeks
when I ask her to rinse again. But, I don’t want her
to think that she is unbearable to look at, either
like the first time I wore a two-piece to the lake
& the boys neither noticed nor were mean to me
as ache filled them while watching my older, bronzing
cousins. They were kind enough to pass over me
& through the summer, waiting to collect on the glances
while my back was turned, not knowing to look.
She says she wants to finish scrubbing on her own,
I turn away. When she’s done rinsing, I turn off
the faucet. Grab a towel. She sways into the clothed
embrace like a newly birthed calf—sideways,
& turns her back to me,
& I secretly hope that it was interpreted
as the closest to love as I could give,
Judge: Ben Grossberg
“No one tells you when to look/ & when not to—”: “Washing Strangers” looks, and looks steadily, at the forced intimacy of those whose jobs it is to care for people they do not know. This poem evokes the body in its decline with great compassion, never losing sight of its dignity or the rituals of privacy.”
“Says the Father to the Night from His Emptied Nest”
by John Sibley Williams
What it’s like to pitch half-drunk
bottles at the dimming stars,
ruin against ruin, all the season’s
hay into a meadow-sized bundle
for burning. The horses and
the children are dead or moving on.
It’s up to me to trample the field
alone, to suicide by living here
thirty more years, to craft an image
of a barn to outlast these cinders.
Some say the first body, made of dust,
wept from its impotence over the world
risen from its ribs. Some say there are still
snakes under the porch speaking to us.
Once I saw a carnage of blackbirds
pecking straw from the head of a scarecrow
wearing my shirt, and for a moment I saw myself
again, beautiful in them.
Judge: Ben Grossberg
“Says a Father” is in equal measure psychological and sociological, documenting the decline of the family farm, a way of life. The emblems here are especially striking: half-drunk bottles, a meadow-sized bundle of hay, and finally “a carnage of blackbirds” pecking at a scarecrow made of the speaker’s clothes. A deft, inventive, and nearly apocalyptic poem.”
“Burning My Brother”
by Henry Hart
New Year’s Day, I hauled the spruce
decorated with tinsel to the compost heap
where a jack o’ lantern glared from eye-pits.
Sun had faded to a smoke stain on the cliff
and apple trees by our barn.
Ice thundered in the distant swamp.
Grabbing the spruce’s top shoot, my brother drizzled
a soup can of gas on needles.
Drops splashed on his hands and blue jacket.
Too dumb to know vapor explodes, I struck
a match and jumped
when the whole tree whooshed into flame.
Even now I see my brother plunge into snow
and stumble toward me, red hands
steaming like lobster claws in the frigid air.
Judge: Ben Grossberg
“This haunted elegy moves with great precision to its piercing conclusion, a memory of the brother “stumbl[ing] toward me, red hands/ steaming like lobster claws in the frigid air.” “Even now,” the poet writes, “I see my brother.” We see him, too—incandescent, stricken—as he lurches forward, simultaneously out of the past and the grave.”